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Being aware of your own blinders

Scientists have opinions, and they are most interesting when they are controversial.  I have little patience for the pretense of a “fair and balanced view,” when we all know that balance comes out of discussions and disagreements among peers, not from the point of view of a single individual. (Pigliucci 2007 Science 31:317)

I more or less agree with this. But the same time, I think it’s important to try to recognize your own biases and try to look past them, to the extent that’s possible. I’ve always been impressed by scientists that actively seek out alternative explanations for their own data and then test those hypotheses with more data. Curt Lively is really good at this.

Why does this come up? Recently I’ve become interested in nonadaptive processes in evolution: the parts of evolution that aren’t natural selection. No, I shouldn’t say interested. More like: I’m mainly interested in selection, but if I’m going to spend all my time studying some particular phenotype of microbes, I want to know if that phenotype is a result of selection, and how.

Thinking about nonadaptive processes doesn’t come natural to me. I first got into evolution through behavioral ecology, a field that’s almost entirely about selection. But not considering the alternatives can lead you astray. The classic work here is “The spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme” by Gould and Lewontin. The basic idea is that not all phenotypes are adaptations; they might just be side effects of other things that are. More recently, Mike Lynch has shown that that many aspects of genome evolution have less to do with selection and more to do with mutation, recombination, and genetic drift.

So I may know that there’s more to evolution than selection, but it’s hard to just decide to think differently. And now that I come to think of it, my experience pretty much illustrate’s Pigliucci’s point. I only started thinking seriously about nonadaptive processes after talking with colleagues who have different backgrounds and different biases.

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